Parliament: Motions on jobs and foreign talent

Minister: Local PMET employment up significantly

Tan See Leng says unemployment has been low among local PMETs, and wages have grown

Singapore has seen an even larger increase in the employment of local professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) as the number of foreign PMETs has risen, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said yesterday.

He told Parliament that there has also been low local PMET unemployment amid an expanding number of PMET job vacancies and growth in local PMET wages.

The proportion of Singapore's workforce in PMET jobs is among the highest in the world at almost 60 per cent, up from 30 per cent in the early 1990s.

In response to the Progress Singapore Party (PSP)'s Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai, Dr Tan said: "This is a very different picture from the dire situation that the PSP has portrayed."

Mr Leong had filed a motion calling on the Government to "address the widespread anxiety among Singaporeans on jobs and livelihoods", citing some free-trade agreements.

"The PSP fixates on the increase in the number of foreign PMETs to argue that locals have been displaced and have lost out," said Dr Tan.

"I oppose the PSP's motion because it does not provide the solutions that Singaporeans anxious about jobs and competition seek."

He added: "The way to address Singaporeans' anxieties... in a fast-changing economy is to... continue to invest heavily in developing our local workforce and ensure that foreigners complement, rather than displace, our locals."

Over the past decade, there was an increase of 110,000 Employment Pass (EP) and S Pass holders. But the number of local PMETs increased by 300,000, Dr Tan noted.

"This is the case even if we look at some of the sub-sectors that hire more EP holders - finance, infocomm and professional services. Over the past decade, EP and S Pass holders in these sub-sectors increased by 40,000, but local PMETs increased by almost 155,000 - almost four times.

"Competition between locals and foreigners is not a zero-sum game," he said.

Replying to PSP's question on whether most of the local jobs created went to permanent residents (PRs), Dr Tan said the majority of local PME growth over the last decade went to Singaporeans born here - with the same situation seen for PMETs. "The PR population has also remained stable over the past decade at around half a million, so it cannot be the case that most of the employment growth went to PRs," he added.

"More fundamentally, as a society, I don't think we should be drawing lines between Singapore citizens and permanent residents," he said. "Singapore is an immigrant nation and openness is one of our society's core strengths."

Meanwhile, local PMET unemployment remains at 3 per cent or lower outside of crises, he said. The long-term unemployment rate is even lower, at below 1 per cent.

"The increase in foreign PMETs has not caused our unemployment rate to rise," Dr Tan said.

The number of PMET job vacancies has also been on an upward trend since 2010, hovering around 30,000 over the past five years.

These job openings are spread across various sectors, with 4,300 unfilled PMET jobs in infocomm, 4,100 in finance and 2,700 in professional services, for instance.

"If every additional foreigner results in one less opportunity for locals, why are there still so many unfilled vacancies? Surely these vacancies should have long been filled," Dr Tan pointed out.

Median local PMET wages have also risen, from $4,600 in 2010 to $6,300 last year, a total increase of 38 per cent. This translates to 21 per cent in real terms.

But Dr Tan acknowledged that a minority of local PMETs do not experience such positive outcomes, especially some older workers who may have lost their jobs.

"This is happening not because of increased competition from foreigners, but from deeper, structural trends," he said, adding that this was a problem from around 2015, when big data and machine learning hit the mass market.

"Companies were racing to build up digital teams. This created new roles which required new skills, while disrupting some existing roles and skills. Against this backdrop, older PMETs faced competition - not so much from foreigners, but from technology and possibly also from younger Singaporeans who had the necessary skills."

Dr Tan also spoke of self-employed people, particularly those who are doing gig work because they cannot find a permanent job.

The proportion of such workers has remained stable over the last two decades at 8 per cent to 10 per cent, with an uptick during the pandemic. About 1.5 per cent of the local workforce are private-hire car drivers on online matching platforms. Only about 30 per cent of these workers want to transition to regular employment, based on a Ministry of Manpower survey, he said.

"Ultimately, the best thing we can do for our locals is to continually invest in them to help them adapt and compete."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'Minister: Local PMET employment up significantly'. Subscribe